David Lee Nelson says he knew what it would take. From his days of studying theater in college, he had known enough gay friends who had come out to their parents. That allowed him to muster up the courage to say three very difficult words to his father:
“I’m a Democrat.”
The Elephant in My Closet, the 2013 Fringe offering from New York City’s Keeping Watch company, chronicles Nelson’s journey to arrive at that moment. It’s a deeply personal and often very funny 75-minute monologue about growing up a dyed-in-the-wool Southern Republican, only to have his core beliefs challenged and then debunked in the middle of last decade. But that, he’s quick to point out, wasn’t the hardest part. Changing one’s mind just takes time and soul-searching. Admitting it to one’s even-more-dyed-in-the-wool Southern Republican father … that takes guts.
The show, which sets up shop in a classroom in the Art Academy, plays out like the hippest American history lecture you never had in college. In that way, the setting is spot-on perfect. It’s Nelson’s commitment to putting his personal journey in a larger historical context that makes Elephant unique, a broad and truly satisfying history lesson that’s both well researched and well assembled. It’s refreshing to see that in a Fringe solo piece. Too often these long-form monologues are about one person’s life and not much else. Thankfully, that’s not the case with Nelson’s piece.
In describing the early days of the Republican Party and walking through some of its groundbreaking and amazingly progressive achievements, it’s hard to fathom that it’s the same party that today rules Fox News. Nelson compares it to seeing an old photo of your grandmother from her wild days and not believing that it’s the same person. “Yes! Republicans were once gorgeous … and slutty!” Nelson howls with glee. The audience, a decidedly mixed-age group on opening night, ate it with a spoon.
It helps to have a little production value — emphasis on little, as this is still the Cincy Fringe — to go along with a 75-minute monologue, and Elephant has a nifty slideshow that unspools behind Nelson as he walks through his history lesson that ultimately led to that fateful moment in the voting booth in 2008 when he (gasp!) pulled the lever for Barack Obama.
The “weapons of mass destruction” debacle was his turning point, Nelson explains, but he wanted to give the Grand Old Party one last chance, leading up to the 2008 election. He thought John McCain was a throwback to the great days of the party and could hasten a comeback to the principles Nelson held dear. Still he had his doubts. You know that one ill-advised drink you take at the end of a long night of heavy drinking? he asks. The one that takes you from drunk to sloppy wasted? That was the selection of Sarah Palin as vice presidential nominee. With that, he was officially over the Republican Party. The only thing left to do, Nelson mused, was to tell his dad.
PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at Art Academy Auditorium. Find more of CityBeat's ongoing 2013 Cincy Fringe Festival coverage, including performance reviews, commentary and venue details , here.